Skip to main content

Full text of "A Poet in Center City Pt.3"

See other formats


A Poet in Center City pt.3 
By Adam Fieled 




#31 

For the second Highwire show, Jim O'Rourke installed a nitrous tank in the stairwell behind 
the "factory room" and manned it. Whippets were sold for a dollar and almost everyone, 
including us, indulged We were all in an exhilarated mood — it was now October, and 
attendance had doubled since the July show. We exhibited one of Trishs paintings, and she 
came with her sister. We were also able to show movies for the first time — our friend (and 
Trishs PAF A buddy) James Nguyen had two short ones, perfect for a venue and an event 
this size. Most importantly, the square worked cohesively (especially at keeping the money 
collection tasks in order, at Jim's behest), and no major balls were dropped between us. I 
learned about Ricky — when he had just the right kind of alcohol buzz going (we had loaded 
up on cases of wine for the event), he could be a sport. The best part of the night, for me in 
particular, was how effortless it all felt — the work of overseeing things (balloons in hand) 
was a pleasure for all of us. If there was a dark edge operative that night, it was that many 
artists were showing up who wanted to ride on the Free School gravy train, and not all of 
them had good or honorable intentions. John, in particular, would drink with anyone, and he 
was besieged with invitations. I struggled with my instinct to impose on John who he could 
and could not drink with. 



#32 

By now, all of us were infected by the freewheeling spirit of the Free School. We were 
bummed that Bush had won a second term; but there was nothing that could be done. One 
of John's many chance acquaintances had bequeathed to him a little acid blotter sheet. So, 
one night, when Christopher and Ricky happened to be unavailable (Christopher in 
particular, being based in Roxborough, was in and out of Center City), we decided to trip. 
We started at my pad at Twenty-First and Race; the acid was slow-burn, and took about 
ninety minutes to sink in. We had been listening to the Stones the whole time, and by the 
time we got to "Hot Rocks" and "Satisfaction," I was "seeing the music." It passed in front 
of me as something concrete. We somehow managed to stagger over to the Last Drop, and 
found ourselves occupying the basement, which was dimly lit (as ever) and dank. Neither of 
us could sit still, and John was stuttering. I had a fortuitous inspiration — I was seeing 
another B & N girl named Jenny Lee, who lived around the corner on Lombard between 
Thirteenth and Broad We could drop in on her. She was a stoner, after all, and forbearing. 
We found her entertaining a bunch of her Delaware friends (she was a U of Delaware BFA). 
At first, John was OK. But when we smoked a bunch of weed on top of the acid, John 
became catatonic. He was rocking back and forth in an armchair, and wouldn't respond to 
questions. The Delaware crew became aggravated by John's bad vibes, so I got him out of 
there. The trip would've been better with all four of us on it, but what the hell. 



#33 

One of the incidents which transpired at this time was symptomatic of Philadelphia's mixed 
reaction to the Free School. I asked a U of Perm staff poet to read with us at the Highwire. 
He demurred, and I shrugged; but Jim O'Rourke revealed that, having discovered the 
Highwire through us, he'd gone behind our backs and booked a huge academy affiliated 
poetry event there. He didn't ask any of us to read. Now, he wasn't breaking any laws, but it 
was a cheap move, and very not Free School. So, employing the privileged position we'd 
established as Highwire regulars (crucially, Jim O'Rourke didn't attempt to dissuade us), we 
decided to put in a unified appearance the night of the reading It was just as boring, rigid, 
and Academic as we had expected — the important part for us was that we stole the show. 
Not only was our antagonist made visibly uncomfortable by our appearance, all the 
Academicians appeared uncomfortable that we were there. Even just our looks ran rings 
around them. As I was later to learn, many academicians have beleaguered fantasies of being 
rock stars themselves, and want to be perceived as celebrities. The Fab Four gave them a 
pungent dose of the real thing. It was enough to make me think that Jim O'Rourke, who had 
smoked us all up in the factory room beforehand, had the whole thing planned when he 
booked the Academy reading. 



#34 

Not all of the Highwire Free School shows were big ones. We would do series of modest 
shows between the larger shows. The Bats were an all-girl band we wanted to book, so we 
did John and I did a bunch of schmooze routines with them, at Tritone and elsewhere, and 
John and I were both in love with Tobi, an old friend of Trish's who played keyboards (and 
also painted). Tobi was tiny, an elf, with exquisite bone-structure in her face, straight dark 
hair, and bright blue eyes. Of the Bats, she was the most natural as a Free School person. By 
this time, we had a new system going at the Highwire, by which the factory room and the 
main space would be used simultaneously. The night the Bats played, we had poets reading 
on a raised dais in the factory room The factory room had high ceilings, but was darker, 
danker, and more private than the main space — a perfect place to smoke up or hook up. 
The poets were Temple kids, and one stuck out for us immediately, especially to John; a 
buxom, olive-skinned Latino named Lena. If I sensed that I would beat John to Tobi, he 
would certainly beat me to Lena, who liked his looseness over my rigor. Christopher and I 
were attempting to perfect a new way of combining poetry with visual imagery; he projected 
images on a screen behind me as I read that night. Frankly, we were both bored with dry 
poetry readings (no matter how attractive the participants), and this was our way of 
extending their range. Headed towards 2005, John's characteristic looseness was the keynote 
mood. Even if it meant that Christopher and I had to up the ante to six drinks per night out. 



#35 

Baptiste Spurn had a birthday party at around this time at his studio at 13th and Carpenter. I 
wound up being the only Free School guy there. The four of us each had different sectors to 
work, and Baptiste's was one of mine. At the time, Baptiste had a menage situation going he 
was living not only with a stripper /burlesque artist named Lissybut with a couch-surfing 
teenage runaway named Anastasia Anastasia was a wild child She later tried to jump from 
one of the Highwire windows. That night, she insisted that everyone strip We were passing 
around a bottle of Stoli; people were downing three or four shots at a time from the bottle. I 
decided to do them one better and down seven. For about fifteen minutes, I felt an 
overpowering sense of swirling ecstasy. Then, I got hit with a wave of nausea so intense I 
almost fainted Everyone was very drunk and very stoned; I managed to drag my pile of 
clothes to the side of the circle and put them on. I didn't want to vomit all over the studio. I 
knew myself to be performing what was, for me, the greatest Intoxication Feat of all time — 
despite all the vodka-shots, I walked all the way from Thirteenth and Carpenter to Twenty- 
First and Race at 2 am without puking. If I spent the rest of the night violently ill, I had 
done the right thing by the Free School; saved face before the big Intoxication Heavyv\eights 
of the Free School nexus, and entered the charmed circle (with John and Ricky) of the 
alcohol poisoned 



#36 

At this time, John and I established an ancillary beat to the beat we were doing in Philly. 
Who's to say that, given the proper venue, Philly Free School couldn't conquer Manhattan? 
John's sister Kyra lived on the Lower East Side. She was a burgeoning fashionista Kyra 
looked like a female John; long curly dark hair, dark eyes, slightly olive skin. To John's 
dismay, we clicked immediately I was aggressive in those days, and Kyra and I flirted 
aggressively. Meanwhile, I was looking up my NYC contacts from the Nineties. The big 
hook-up was Samantha Fry, a singer-songwriter I met at the Sidewalk Cafe back then doing 
anti-folk and who was still my friend I was also in touch with Jeff Kim Chung a 
Swarthmore grad I had worked with at B & N who was now doing a fiction MF A at 
Columbia. With Kyra's fashion contacts, we had the rudiments of an NYC Free School circle 
in place. The big venue target seemed to be the Bowery Poetry Club. Every time we went to 
NYC, John and I stopped in there to chat up the staff. We eventually got the e-mail of the 
guy who ran the place. He was slow to respond And while we tried to get Ricky and 
Christopher in on the NYC shenanigans, it was clear that the problem was housing. Kyra 
could fit John and I comfortably in her little studio; but all four of us would have been 
absurd. I was hoping to court both Samantha and Kyra. John and I were still doing our pot 
ri books routine at B & N in Philly, and the whole Free School adventure became like living 
in a haze. If there was a rock beneath us at this point, it was Jim O'Rourke. We still, all of us, 
had the Pfighwire like a fist, and that was still where we had the most fun. 



#37 

The next time John and I hit NYC, we went with Kyra to see Samantha play solo at a club 
on Ludlow Street. I spent the night flirting with both of them. At one point, we were all 
sitting on a couch, and I had one on either side of me. We must've looked outrageous. 
Samantha lived far away in Brooklyn, whereas Kyra was only a few blocks away. Plus, John 
and I had a bunch of things to do the next day. So, I decided to stick around. Oddly enough, 
I never got another chance to hook up with Samantha. Kyra and I were hot and heavy all 
over each other. John, in the next room by the end of the night, just had to take it and go to 
sleep. I knew I was being cruel, but my blood always mastered me in those days. I was too 
aroused to be scrupulous. The next day, the three of us went to see John Ashbery read in the 
West Village. We also stopped in to see our contacts at BPC, and it looked like we were 
finally going to get a date. John was only slightly more moody than usual. As for Kyra, I 
could tell that the night before hadn't been a big deal for her. I had it in me to be smooth 
about moving on too. John and I slept on the Chinatown bus back to Philry. Because John 
and I were both decent raconteurs, I guessed that the story about Kyra and I would do the 
rounds very fast. During a promiscuous era in Center City, I knew that the recounted drama 
would be all to the good. I could also sense in the air that some kind of drama would come 
to a head between Ricky and I. 



#38 

In the bars and the clubs, artistic types were beginning to migrate towards the Free School 
crew when we went out together. We didn't always have to search aggressively, or to be "on" 
anymore. I don't recall how we came to meet Heather Mullen. The first memory I have of 
Heather is of her sitting with us for some reason at McGlinchey's. Perhaps we met her there. 
She was tallish, about 5'7, handsome rather than pretty, in a thick-browed, Frida Kahlo-ish 
way. She was writing novels. She and Ricky were combustible. But the knife-edge current in 
the air, even on this first night, was that she wanted me too. I hung back, and let Ricky win, 
which was painful but (I felt) necessary. Ricky and Heather became an item almost instantly. 
In a way, Ricky was a more apropos target for Heather — they were both authentically self- 
destructive. They were also, I was later to find, derisive about me behind my back We 
arranged a reading specifically for the five of us at Molly's Books in South Philly. Oddly, 
Heather's heart-on-the-sleeve prose aligned her more with John Rind than with Ricky, who 
tended to ape the loopy surrealism of Foster Wallace and the McSweeney's crew who were 
big then One reason I had brought Sara Blount back into the fold was for her to meet 
Rick)? — they were firing off on similar literary cylinders. Somehow, the meeting never came 
off — Sara was a delicate bird, easily frightened away. But Heather stuck And as she and 
Ricky were soon living together, and as she was dragging all her social contacts (some artists, 
some young politico types) to Free School shows, the whole Free School experience was 
deepening and darkening into something more personal, more "felt," then it had been 
before. 



#39 

When the square was initiated, the only circuit which didn't function properly was 
Christopher-Ricky Over the course of a year, more tension developed as the John-Ricky 
circuit became more active. When The Drinkers drank, they liked to take the piss just 
generally because Christopher could be awkward, and his social mannerisms were so unique, 
he was easy pickins' for The Drinkers in general. Ricky was constantly goading John to be 
harder and more callous; John wanted desperately to be impressive to Ricky and idealized 
him as a big brother figure; both The Book Nerds bore the brunt of their chemistry, but 
Christopher in particular got victimized Predictably, Ricky lorded his relationship with 
Heather over us, and being sexually active stimulated him to greater displays of 
rambunctiousness. Ricky wanted to invert things; to place himself at the top. My strategy 
against him was to keep working my circuit with John on a day-to-day basis, so that we could 
work without Ricky getting in the way. At this point, we worked towards another big 
Highwire show, with Baptiste and his band (ElektroWorx). We even had a place for one of 
Baptiste's DJ friends. By the time the show happened, Jim O'Rourke was there with a 
nitrous tank again. This time, throngs of teenagers from the suburbs showed up. Jim wisely 
hid the nitrous tank, as the Highwire momentarily went "rave." 



#40 

Lena, the Temple student who had read with us more than once, was on the scene quite a bit 
then She and John were very tender with each other, and Ricky liked to play up the "double 
date" angle and bring Heather in on the action I wasn't seeing anyone steadily, and detested 
feeling like a fifth wheel. When this formation emerged, I would leave. It's just that Heather 
and I had a little secret pact going and knew it. By Bloomsday '05 (June 16), we had entered 
into a full-on affair, and Ricky was out. All the while, John and I had picked up the cudgel to 
put together a huge poetry reading at the Khyber, patterned after the Poetry Incarnation 
reading in '65 Swinging London. It wasn't an entirely joyless enterprise, but without 
Christopher and Ricky there was little espirit de corps. Now we just felt like ordinary 
hustlers; even if, for the first time, the Philly press were showing some interest in us. We 
hammed the event up verbosely for them The darkest cloud on the horizon for me 
personally was D.P. Plunkett and his crew. The Free School had found ways to upstage 
them, but we were falling apart. The Plunkett poets read at Poetry Incarnation '05 with many 
others; but they were morose at the event because we didn't treat them like stars. They 
reacted by concocting a spurious tale that I had withheld money from them and began to 
circulate it after the event. If I wanted to survive, I knew I'd have to stop dissipating my 
energies and focus on poetry in a singular way. There was no other way to conquer the 
Plunkett goons; and I'd learned that art events are all too transient. There was little in them 
left to keep. I had one major piece out in Jacket Magazine; it was time to build on it. 



#41 



Times had changed in America, and in the Western world in general. The Free School had 
taken some notice of the Internet; we had a blog But a vista had opened for me with poetry 
and the Net — I saw an unlimited amount of possibility in that conjunction. After all, poems 
are compressed and can be read relatively quickly. During the autumn of '05, 1 turned the 
Philly Free School blog into a poetry journal — PFS Post. With PFS Post came an era during 
which I wasn't "in the street" as much. It was an auspicious time to rein myself in — John 
Rind, especially, had been caught in a social maelstrom with Free School hangers-on who 
had now migrated over to the Plunkett goons. It was a sick, alcoholic, head-smashing scene. 
The gossip and back-biting were terrible. The remnants of our social network were lost in 
absolute entropy — and if I didn't work fast and hard, I'd have been lost too. I myself was 
also drawn in to attend some Plunkett readings at the time. It was a scene of poseurs and 
flatulently undereducatedblowhards — but they were well-connected in Philly, more so than 
I was, so I couldn't afford to ignore them John and I disrupted them by being physically 
attractive — they looked like mongrels and dogs. They even had the nerve to follow our lead 
and do readings at the Khyber. The first lesson I learned about the serious poetry world was 
an important one — the vast majority of poets are physically unattractive and (for the most 
part) sexually inactive. Those who signify actual sex, as John and I did, are abhorrent to 
them. I made a quick decision — I wasn't going to give up sex to be a poet (and I did mean 
hetero sex). That sacrifice would be too great, especially as fecundity of mind often follows 
from fecundity of body. 



#42 

The other key decision I'd made was to pursue a graduate education past my MFA. Many 
poets (especially avant-gardists) in the Philadelphia area had PhDs. So, I applied to a bunch 
of PhD programs, and received the University Fellowship to study and teach at Temple 
University. This meant a stipend and health insurance benef its — I wouldn't need to work at 
B & N anymore. I had no intention of becoming a pedant (especially where the arts were 
concerned), but teaching at the university level seemed like a reasonable way to earn a living. 
I was still doing my MFA, but was rapidly evolving into an avant-gardist (avant-garde tereain 
in contemporary culture being intellectually richer than standardized) and so couldn't learn 
much from a faculty dominated by sentimentalists and Pulitzer bed-warmers. I began, past 
Jacket Magazine, to publish internationally as well, especially online. The Plunkett poets were 
provincial in comparison, and while I couldn't compete with their Philly connectedness 
(some connections were Old Money ones), I could begin to connect myself on other levels. 
The Center City art scene at this time, not just us and the Plunketts but the DJs, musicians, 
and impresarios who ran the club-nights we'd been competing against, was growing rather 
dark Everyone seemed to be drunk all the time. If it was a train- wreck, it was a fascinating 
train- wreck — all the exhibitionism was dramatic and intelligent (John and Ricky were 
exemplars); but I was working towards writing actual books, and Center City for me began 
to be a more solitary place. I wanted to survive the wreckage. 



#43 

By the time I finished my MF A in mid '06, 1 had two operative blogs — PFS Post and 
Stoning the Devil. Stoning the Devil I used for lit-crit and general commentary The final 
summer residency was an anti-climax; no drama with profs, no sex. I spent the residency 
reading "Infinite Jest" and writing a new series of poems I called "Madame Psychosis." It 
was an experiment in a new kind of poetic portraiture. By the time I began at Temple in 
August, I was ready to submit a manuscript with "Madame Psychosis" and a few other new 
series (serial writing having become one of my stocks in trade) to a major publisher. The 
manuscript was called "Beams," and was accepted for publication some time in '07. 
Christopher was staging a series of events around his photographs; I helped him when I 
could John was on the bar scene as usual. Through Temple, I met a group of poets in my 
age group who had recently descended on Center City from Amherst, Massachusettes. They 
were very status-conscious, and were status-seekers themselves. They had some Free School- 
level moxie around alcohol and drugs, even if they seemed frigid in other ways. I learned 
from them The wisdom they taught me was dark — that unless you have a clan of poets to 
work out of, you're unlikely to make it as a poet in America. The Plunkett poets weren't 
quite enough to teach me this lesson, but after the Amherst crew I never forgot it. I also 
never forgot that I was staking my claim on iconoclasm — living a life as a sexually active 
heterosexual male not affiliated with any particular group, including (by this time) the Philly 
Free School. I could only survive by going against the grain, and I knew as much. 



#44 

What was new to me then was being alone in Center City. It was no longer the case that 
every time I left my apartment, I was guaranteed a new adventure. I became more settled in 
my habits. The Last Drop was convenient for me in many ways; it became part of my daily 
routine. I would sit there with a stack of books and do my academic work and write. John at 
this point was on his way out, off to L. A. to do video work Christopher I saw fairly often; 
he was engaged briefly, then that broke off. Ricky studiously avoided running into me, 
though he was situated at Temple too. The Temple campus, in North Philadelphia, was a 
disappointment — a concrete jungle. Anderson Building where dwelt the English 
Department on floors nine-eleven, was particularly hideous — a sky-rise done in tacky 
"nouveau" style. The English Department had all uncarpeted floors, and I was given an 
office with no windows. Because it was so forbidding being on the Temple campus always 
elicited a crepuscular feeling in me. I was both doing and attending random readings around 
Center City but none had the cohesive magnetism of the Free School shows. Many of the 
Center City streets seemed to have languished into deadness with the coming recession, or 
perhaps been petrified. I came up with the term "visionary deadness" to describe Center City 
then. It was a contradictory term, and meant that way. When I found myself reunited with 
Trish, I still enjoyed the ambience of West PhiUy — the Satellite Cafe, Mariposa, Clark Park 
Anything at a substantial tangent to Center City, yet still related to it, worked for me 
(including Temple) when I was in the right mood 



#45 

I had begun to visit Chicago every six months. The visits were oriented around poetry and 
poetry readings. Wicker Park in Chicago reminded me very much of Manayunk in Philly, and 
the Loop was interesting to me for being as clean as the nicer bits of D.C and having the 
scale of Manhattan. Times were dark for me in Center City — not only because I'd broken 
up with Trish again, but because I was on the verge of all-out war with the Plunkett poets. I 
was gaining power and cureency — I was out-publishing them But the fight wasn't really fair; 
it was a group of them against one poet, standing alone. The main circuits they engaged were 
gossip-oriented circuits — I was constantly being slandered in places I used to love, like 
McGlinchey's and Dirty Frank's. John, when he was around, would always (I later heard) 
rush to my defense; but many minor Free School characters had defected and were arrayed 
against me. I reacted to these pressures (and the pressures of my career at Temple) by 
redoubling my efforts, especially where the two blogs were concerned It worked; I soon had 
a substantial audience for both blogs. That Center City could feel like a battle-ground was 
something I hadn't known before. Plunkett, in particular, was absolutely maniacal about 
getting me the hell out of his way, and (unfortunately for me) he had Temple backing to do 
it. What saved me, quite unequivocally, was the Internet. I had a life online they couldn't 
touch. The Internet was its own "New Art City," which held as many levels of excitement to 
it as Center City Philly had when I first arrived here.